Director Rodney Lucas Explores the Creative Process Behind His First Super Bowl Spot, Ads for Nike and More
Over the years, piece by piece, director Rodney Lucas, who signed with Little Minx for commercials and content representation last fall, has built an impressive body of work that celebrates Black America. Across his projects, Lucas imbues a documentary approach with poetic visuals and a drive to authentically represent diverse communities.
Some highlights from his reel: a spot for Nike that finds legendary Chicago journalist Scoop Jackson teaching a boy about the Black athletes who broke barriers in the 1960s; Southside Magnolia, a documentary for Doordash, chronicling the revival of a beloved BBQ restaurant on the South Side; and a commercial for United with Opal Lee, the activist and educator known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, marveling over the accomplishments of Black pilots.
Earlier this year, Lucas marked a career milestone as a commercial director when his NFL spot "We See You" aired during Super Bowl LVII. The moving ad finds players including Saints linebacker Demario Davis and 49ers tight end George Kittle sharing their appreciation for everyday heroes, ranging from mothers to military veterans.
Now based in Brooklyn, Lucas was brought up on Chicago's South Side, where he saw his father sent to prison, his sister shot and close friends murdered. He knows what it is like to go hungry and has experienced periods of homelessness.
“I didn’t expect to live this long, which is probably the reason why I work so hard,” says the self-taught filmmaker. “I walk every day with a sense of purpose but also a sense of confidence that comes from me not even seeing myself in these shoes 10 to 15 years ago.”
Below, Lucas talks about his creative mission as a filmmaker, casting process and the types of brands he seeks as partners.
MUSE: When I look at your work, I really get a sense of who you are and what is important to you. Can you talk about what want to accomplish?
RODNEY LUCAS: Thank you for saying that. I’ve done it on purpose. When you see my stuff, I try and film it in a way that you know it’s Rodney. My relatives see my commercials and know it’s me. They text me, "Yo, I just saw one of your spots."
The initial goal was to give people this view into Black America. I’ve always seen my mother and my aunts, my uncles, my community as this really magical place. And the second I had the chance to pick up a camera, I wanted to show the world the folks that have influenced me, the folks that I think have influenced the world. So, like in my NFL spot, the woman holding a baby—that's my sister. That’s her and her wife’s baby. Probably half my spots I try to include members from my family.
Can you tell me more about your casting process? You appear to come at it from the point-of-view of a documentarian.
Completely. My casting comes from the streets. When I go into a town, I go to the barber shop, I go to the mall. I want to know who's got the best gold. I want to know who got the best rides. I want to know who is lit and on fire in those towns. I need that energy of the streets to push the volume of my spots.
And that talent is seeking more than economic gain or more commercial work beyond that moment. That talent is genuinely seeing a Black man on the other side of the camera that is accountable in terms of the image to put out there about us. We share this bond as it relates to the portrayal of our community. And when they see me, they finally see an ally on the other side.
It is powerful seeing Chicago sports writer Scoop Jackson in your Nike ad as a mentor to a little boy.
He was actually in one of my first pieces [a branded film for Dick’s Sporting Goods] called "Benji Lives," about a basketball player who was from my neighborhood that was killed in the ’80s.
I’ve always seen Scoop as like the Spike Lee in Chicago. When I was in school, and I just wanted like a hug from a Black man, Scoop was always there to give it to me. I would go by Scoop’s house on the South Side and have a drink. I just wanted to be close to a Black man that was positive and believed in me.
When we wrote the script for Nike, I knew I wanted the kid talent to be able to be the recipient of and feel the same love that Scoop had been giving me for a decade of my life. I knew that would really come across onscreen because Scoop naturally has that sense of protection as it relates to connecting to Black youth.
The kid is actually one of my best friend’s sons. Just a beautiful wide-eyed baby. And that store is the store I grew up on. Literally, I would go to that store since I was five years old. So I wanted to create a vibe that was basically an interpretation of Rodney at the age of seven or eight, hanging out in this store soaking in game from older brothers that were on the corner.
What inspired you to make the short documentary Black Hercules about Black bodybuilders?
I wanted to create a short that was a love letter to Black men that spent time in prison. To me, they came home looking like superheroes. Like these brothers had a workout regimen in the joint that was just like next level. I thought that was something quite revolutionary. You could have a caged body, but that caged body had enough self-discipline and enough self-love to work out, to stay in hope, to create a pattern of self-care while in bondage. So these brothers would come out [of prison], and I would call them Black Hercules. They were like the people's champ.
Doing research that went beyond my uncles, I became really tight with a brother named Craig Monson, who was a bodybuilder in the ’80s, and he essentially started the bodybuilding culture of South Central L.A., a bodybuilding culture that was heavily inspired by prison workouts.
The foundation of Black Hercules is how in spite of being caged and locked up and dealing with the extremes of Reagan-era politics, these brothers still came out beautifully chiseled and representing a sense of pride for the community.
There is so much pride and love and celebration in everything you make. I see it in the Nike spot you directed starring track and field sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson. The camera stays on her nails for much of the spot, and we learn so much about her by looking at them while we listen to her speak.
I wanted young Black women to see those fingernails and know that’s Sha'Carri just like we see the motherfucking jump man and know that's Michael Jordan. So in order to reach that level of personalized branding within our psyche, I had to show the level of creativity, the level of art that was involved with those fingernails.
And I really wanted the shoot to feel like a family reunion, because I knew she was distrustful of the media. So when she came to that set, it was my goal to make that set feel like her grandmother’s kitchen, to make that set feel like home. I wanted everything that I could possibly have within my power—food, the whole energy of us playing Lil Baby—to make her feel exactly at home and to make her feel that we cared and loved her.
How did you get into making commercials?
I didn't even realize that there were actually known commercial directors until late in my career of making films, honestly. I didn’t view it as a thing.
You were making documentaries, and then began working in the ad world, right?
Yeah, my first piece was [a documentary] called South Side Forever, and that was a piece about my community. I wanted to capture something, a short story basically. Give people a real-time view into three different chapters of Black life in Chicago. And Nowness [the digital video channel] picked it up. They kind of called, "Fire!" And then folks reached out to me, different production companies wanting to sign me. I signed with Emerald Pictures, and that was my first go in the commercial world. [Lucas was later represented by Even/Odd Films before joining the Little Minx roster.] They wanted to take what I did because they saw so much promise in it and see if I could incorporate that visual language into 30-second clips.
How do you work as a director when you are on location or on set?
It's my job to be of service when I'm on set. I used to be a waiter for over a decade. So even like my first spot I would actually wear an apron on set because it just reminded me of being of service. You know what I'm saying? Like walking past a table and subconsciously bussing that table because for so long I was in the trenches of brunch. I think what that does is set the tone for my entire crew to ultimately follow my lead and be of service to our talent in the community.
And once I leave these communities, I want to leave them with something. So, typically, when I'm on set, I have a young kid, not even interning, but just following me around as part of the energy because I want them to be able to learn the system.
For so long, white men have fronted that this shit was rocket science, and it has been like this string of gatekeepers—as if it takes some next-level brilliant mind to crack the code of commercial filmmaking. Right. I'm like, nah, no bro, that's not it. They just need to protect their pockets. That's why they’re doing that. But come here, and I can teach you how to work this 16 millimeter camera. I can teach you how to be able to put together an effective spot that hits all the boxes and ticks all the marks within a 30- or 60-second piece.
The energy I'm on is ultimately leaving tools for my community to be able to tell their own stories, control their own narratives through commercial filmmaking, through branded content.
What kinds of brands and advertising agencies do you want to work with?
I'm trying to see if they're really about it, right? If they have the receipts for the message they want to give to the public. So, if it’s a message regarding any group of marginalized people, I want to see them actually doing the work in the community before we make that spot.
There needs to be a backstory. To me, that's essential. I think part of bringing me onboard a project is that I’m giving this company, I'm giving this brand a level of credibility, and for me to consider you a true ally, frankly, some of the work, some of the groundwork at least has to have already been done. Those are the projects I try to take on and am the most excited about.
I've been fortunate enough to have partners to make really, really cool stuff with—folks that are actually out there working. I love to see creative directors that are creative and pushing, pushing, pushing a sense of freshness. We're not going to necessarily change the entire landscape of commercial filmmaking through one man, but I do think that there are endless possibilities.
You see these slivers of hope so to speak, and you see these moments that really give you the opportunity to say something great, say something that’s powerful, say something that's going to move America. And I try and take those moments every single chance I get, even if it’s written in code through my sister holding her baby in a commercial. I live for those moments completely.